London calling

| by Neil Webb

Tags: Staff blog Interview

Most of my career with the British Council has been overseas, at the delivery end, where you can see first-hand the impact of our work. Coming back to the UK, if I miss anything, it's that rush you get after months of planning, when the project is actually happening. I think at times it can be difficult for the London team, too, not to get to witness the fruits of their labour. But I'm really enjoying being back and reconnecting with the sector here and getting to see new trends as they emerge, rather than a year later when the work starts to tour internationally.

Having spent the past 15 years overseas, it's quite nice to stay put for a while. The extent of my travel in the past eight months has mostly been up and down to Scotland for meetings about the British Council Showcase, British Dance Edition and Made in Scotland. I had very travel-intensive roles previously, and I'm not missing that aspect too much for now. Having said that, it's important to get out there and experience the work we're doing in other regions, especially those I know less about – it's something I'd like to prioritise, but then there are a lot of things to prioritise!

After university at Berkeley, I spent a few years dancing with a small company in San Francisco before moving back to the UK to do the Arts and Cultural Management course at City University. I went on to work for Visiting Arts – back in the days when it shared offices with the British Council on Portland Place – and in 1998 went out to Taipei to research and write the Taiwan Arts Directory for them. I wanted to learn Chinese, so I stayed in Taipei after completing the project. I did a bit of freelance work for the local British Council office there and was eventually fortunate enough to land the job of Arts Manager. I ended up spending six years in Taipei before moving to mainland China as Head of Arts for Beijing. I took some time out in 2007 to do a Clore Fellowship and was later promoted to Director Arts for China. My last job before moving back to London was Director Arts for the Asia-Pacific, based in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam.

My current job was the impetus for coming back to the UK. When the job was advertised, I was torn: I was less than two years into my contract in Vietnam, and I wasn't ready to leave. But when my dream job came up, I couldn't not apply. It's exciting on many levels to be back in London after being away for so many years, and I couldn’t have picked a better time. I arrived back in London on the last weekend of the Olympics and was instantly swept up in the euphoria and sense of national pride, a feeling which was only heightened by the Paralympics and the success of the Unlimited Festival which my team had helped to support. I work with fantastic people, I've got a wonderful team, and the theatre and dance sectors are vibrant and exciting. These are difficult times for the arts as we all know, but it's encouraging to see how companies and artists are responding, adapting and provoking.

One of the challenges which, to some degree, I think is universally shared by arts organisations around the world is how to reach new audiences. It’s something for which the UK has developed quite a strong reputation and has some genuine innovation to share, particularly with regard to access, learning and quality of engagement. Meanwhile, there are lessons we can learn from other cultures, too. I have seen how incredibly entrepreneurial artists can be, working in extremely challenging or even hostile environments, often without any physical infrastructure or funding system to support the creation or presentation of their work. And yet around the world, art continues to flourish and inspire. There are a lot of models for making things happen, which is why I believe so strongly in the work we do… and why I love my job.

Neil Webb is Director Theatre and Dance for the British Council. He was speaking to Eleanor Turney.

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